“One must always keep the tools of statecraft sharp and ready. Power and fear – sharp and ready.”
– Frank Herbert, Dune
Struggling noble houses are a fantasy trope, so you want to create a few for your fantasy story. Who wouldn’t?
Back in the day, before winter came, there was Dune. Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), and David Lynch’s masterpiece movie adaption (1984) are milestones for intrigue and politics in speculative fiction and grand examples of world building. Fast forward 31 years to 1996, when winter finally came, we have the release of George R.R Martin’s A Game of Throne, a book that needs no further comments from me.
Between these two books, you have a blueprint for using warring noble houses in your story.
Real-world sources are plenty, just consider the story of Cesar, Augustus, Mark Anthony, and Cleopatra, or the War of the Roses in medieval England.
Let’s examine each element in turn. Your story will benefit if you get it right.
- The Domain.
- Heraldry, Uniforms, Colors, and Words.
- Servants and Armies.
- Plots and Lore.
You can dig into the good stuff once you have those basics covered.
- The Sins of the Past.
- Three Stories of Wars, Secrets, and Betrayals.
“I swear to you, sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Nobility origin in wealth and power derived from land, whether we are talking about planet Caladan, Winterfell or Minas Tirith.
Make sure your noble houses’ domains are distinct and recognizable. The domain is the noble house’s source of power, and for the nobles to be a worthy adversary and their domains must reflect that.
Identify the domains key resources and sources of income, and the size of its population. A noble house cannot wage war unless it has gold and a population to spend.
Heraldry, Uniforms, Colors, and Words
Each noble house should have recognizable heraldic symbols, uniforms, tokens of rulership or regalia, and mottos or certain words they use to create an identity, rally troops and intimidate enemies.
House Atreides uses the colors black and green and has the red hawk as a symbol. House Stark uses the dire wolf as a symbol and uses the words “winter is coming” to focus and prepare for what’s coming. The royal standard of Gondor is the White Tree of Gondor.
You say something about your noble houses if you get these right. Why is the Starks preparing and expecting the worst? What is the meaning of the hawk? Why a white tree?
Servants and Armies
“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Noble Houses need henchmen, soldiers and servants to function. They also have other members of the household – like squires and ladies-in-waiting – in addition to the noble family. Together they add texture to your stories and can be used to propel the story forward.
The Steward, Regent or Viceroy has the authority to rule in the monarch’s place.
The Chamberlain or Seneschal makes decisions for the royal household in the monarch’s absence.
The Sage is an expert on the history and all kinds of lore. The sage may double as a tutor and Herald.
The Herald is an expert on nobles, heraldry, and etiquette.
The Spymaster keeps everybody informed about the state of the realm and any threats.
The Master Assassin deal with threats in a most permanent fashion.
The Royal Quartermaster oversees the funding and the gear of the agents, including poisons and magic items.
The Horsemaster oversees and tends to the domain’s horses.
The Treasurer oversees the domain’s finances and sometimes literally its gold reserves.
The Royal Mage has access to knowledge and cosmic powers none others understand, and may the critical on the battlefield.
The High Priest or Chaplain is the religious leaders of the noble household.
The General is the highest military commander.
The Castellan oversees the defense of a stronghold.
The Marshall oversees the training of the troops.
A Warden oversees a specific area of the domain, like a forest or a village.
A Guard Captain is the commander of the house guard.
The Knights are soldiers, often cavalrymen, with noble rank.
The Ladies-in-waiting are noble daughters who act as servants for the Royals while they search for husbands.
The Squires are knights-in-training who works as servants of knights.
Why All This Detail?
The storytellers have two major concerns when using servants and henchmen in a story.
The supporting character must serve a purpose to the story and the main characters and must be an active part of the protagonist’s power base to justify any attention – in short, serve a role in the story.
The supporting cast needs motivation like any other character in the story. What do the supporting cast want and why choose to serve the protagonist? The key is to ask questions about the supporting character to explore their background and motivation.
Detail is essential because any entourage of servants must have its fair share of enemy spies, betrayers, and other weak links. The key to use til properly is to figure out why. Only an adequately motivated supporting character can betray the protagonist in a meaningful manner.
Plots and Lore
Noble houses have the same agendas as individuals, and you as the storyteller should ask the same questions about your noble houses as you do for individual characters: what do they want and what are their problems?
The answer will, however, be more complicated for noble houses than individuals: noble houses are organizations, and as such, they are multifaceted, inconsistent and often contradictory.
Noble houses have histories and traditions. When you map these out, preferably in tandem with rival houses, the houses will surprise you as you add details.
So what do the houses want? Whatever your plot needs. Power, peace, justice, revenge, or prosperity.
The Sins of the Past
“Ill news is an ill guest.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (1954)
“My lord, I have dire news.”
- We have learned that your vindictive neighbor lord secretly hates the king for raping his mother, which also makes him a contender for the throne. Surely this knowledge must be put to use.
- The princess has poisoned several suitors, and the king has become uneasy. Our sources at court stay the throne will crack down on any family who refuses the princess now.
- The king is tired of the struggle and is courting the idea of peaceful relations with a rival kingdom. An absurd notion. Luckily his sons have other ideas and are on good terms with the larger fraction of the Great Houses.
- A rival lord has secretly offered old land grants to your enemies. Our enemies have publicly refused, but it can only the perceived as an attempt to negotiate the price. Both houses must pay for this insolence.
- It turns out, a rival lord’s father secretly courted your grandmother. In fact, your true lineage is in question if this talk is allowed to continue.
- Our spies have picked up talk in a rival lord’s barracks. The old veterans say your mother’s riding accident was no accident at all, and a trusted follower of your brother was seen riding hastily away as help arrived.
- I fear your sister did not love her husband. In fact, she loved your rival more. Do you see any of them here in your court? No? All free blades are off the market, and you believe you are safe.
- Your father, on his deathbed, gave a stack of letters to the Herald. The herald retired soon after, and the alliances of the Great Houses shifted in your disfavor the month after. You think that is a coincidence? I am sure you are right, my lord.
Three Stories of Wars, Secrets, and Betrayal
Three simple outlines in three acts, stories of nobles tearing the Known Realms asunder. Each scenario makes different assumptions regarding the state of the setting, but all end in a horrifying struggle of noble houses and plenty of adventure opportunities.
The War of Succession
A once strong nation plunge into a war of succession is three acts as the weak monarch dies and there are several possible successors.
First Act: The Death of the Monarch
The line of succession has for years worried the nobles and heralds of the realm, and everybody sense weakness and smell blood when the monarch’s health seems to be failing. Bandits roam the countryside. Several nobles fall on an assassin’s blade. The monarch’s Inner Council seem to be falling apart, and the Great Houses are mustering new armies.
It is a time of opportunity was mercenaries, and assassins and mages are in high demand. Simple guards get raises. Burglaries, raids, and espionage pay better than every.
The monarch dies at the end of the act, and there are rumors of foul play. The commoners blame a little-loved relative of the king. The Inner Council cease to speak to each other, and unidentified assassins attacked one councilor in the throne room, and the outcome is uncertain. The Great Houses each favor their candidates. The realm is at war.
Second Act: The Civil War
The Great Kingdom now has several monarchs, each with varying claims on the throne. The surviving Inner Council are likely to remain in the capital with its resources, but the other rulers establish their councils as their services are required. The land suffers a series of significant battles settling the fate of the realm. Pillaging, abuse, plague and starvation following in its wake.
The Swords of the Crown are busy across the land doing their bloody work. Other, more heroic figures, apparently trying to salvage whatever remaining decency. Skilled warriors, mages, and rogues rise to power as they decide the fates of the Great Houses, and grow into positions as generals, champions, spymasters, court mages and master thieves.
The kingdom’s darkest hour is when the number of contenders of the throne has dwindled down to just a couple, and one final battle remains. It is the decisive moment, and the battle is the worst one yet. Truly horrible and everything seems lost.
Third Act: A New Monarch
The surviving factions scurry for power, and again influential individuals decide the outcomes as heroes and villains are tracked down, cornered and face justice. Archenemies finally settle their score and account for old misdeeds. They reveal the last darkest secrets, and the enemies face-off in one final battle, now on a personal level.
A new monarch, the last contender standing, emerges in the end. The realm is at peace again. For now.
The Tales of the Crumbling Empire
The crumbling empire descends into civil as a strong region decide it has had it with the decaying central government.
First Act: Provincial Concerns
The once Great Empire has decayed for decades, perhaps centuries even, and the breaking point is creeping up it. Power is moving from the central government to the regional cities, and many regions feel they would do a better job on their own. The Great Houses had an only marginal presence at the Imperial Court and moved their interests to their lands long ago.
It has become difficult to collect taxes. The borders and roads are no longer secure. Shadows appear in the woods, and there are rumors of soldiers moving in the wilds. Malcontent and rivalry flourish as fear of the Imperial Throne wanes.
The final spark can be something small and simple. A land dispute, The assassination of a minor noble, or religious prosecution. The conflict spiral quickly out of control as troops clash on the borders and refugees appear from supposedly peaceful provinces.
Second Act: The Empire Fractures
Some event pushes the provinces over the edge. Perhaps an assassination or religious upheaval, or a young noble unwittingly insulted the wrong person. It does not matter, all that matters is that the war everybody yearned for finally is here, the suffering commoners be damned, and regions muster their armies, and the nobles can settle old scores.
The noble houses launch a series of attacks on each other and enemy strongholds. Alliances will shift, and unveil secret agreements. Assassins, thieves, sellswords, freelance mages and renegade priests will all find plenty of work, and their salaries skyrocket.
It is a time for desperate measures as well. Infernal pacts, bargains with dragons, summoning the dead and bonding with vampire covens all become viable options as the struggle picks up momentum. It is a time when only the strongest, brightest and most treacherous will prevail.
Only a few houses remain in the game as the final battle of the second act draws nearer, and the outcome sets the stage for the third and final act.
Third Act: The New Order
Only a handful of houses remain in the game after the initial series of battles, raids, and assassination, and the final battle looms ahead. The stakes are the same, one mistake is likely to doom the noble family, but the consequences are higher. Now the empire is in the balance.
The decisive moment is when the houses play their last dark secrets. Foreign sellswords arrive. One of the dragons switches allegiance. An assassin gets to one of the leaders, sidelining a faction. A demon lord appears on the battlefield.
One Great House remains in the end, possibly with new vassals, and face opportunity and hard choices. Do they move forward and claim independence, or is the Imperial Throne next? Is this a new chapter for the empire, or the end?
The War of the Free Cities
The Principalities, or League of Free Cities, has grown arrogant and powerful and it leaders greedy. The alliance’s original purpose seems forgotten, and peace and prosperity have become a curse.
First Act: The Shadow of Malcontent
The power between the cities suddenly shifts or spur one of the cities to act. Maybe a dark secret is out behind closes doors. Perhaps the dynastic intermarriages finally have given a faction a decisive upper hand.
Regardless of its reasons, one of the cities suddenly attacks one of the other cities, claiming self-defense and the desire for justice after sudden and unexplained deaths.
Second Act: The Cities at War
The other cities are at a loss and are forced to pick sides, although this may have had a long time coming. Those relucted are forced into action by more assassinations and the threat of losses by indecision. It is better to be better to act wrongly than not act at all. The Great Houses must pick their alliances carefully, especially those with interests in several cities.
Third Act: The Founding of a Kingdom
A handful of factions appears to be the victors as the cities, and lesser houses fall, and in the end, only a few remain. The Free Cities now belongs to the best general or the best diplomat, anyone who can unite a couple of factions, by force or guile, become a leader, and the Free Cities have become a kingdom once the losing side sees the futility of resistance.
Hail to the Monarch!
- Creating a Fantasy Setting
- Create Roleplaying Game Campaigns
- Write Fantasy Timelines
- The Way of the Sellsword
- The Sword of the Crown
The Reading List
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Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert is the story about the two feuding noble houses fighting over the desert planet Dune and the precious spice Melange. Dune is a masterwork. It even says so on the cover.
Daughter of the Empire (1988) by Janny Wurst and Raymond E. Feist is a spin-off from Feist’s Magician, where a young woman finds herself in charge of a noble house in a sprawling empire. Rereading the Magician a few years back was a mixed experience, but I recall liking this better back in the day, and it keeps getting good reviews. It’s worth considering.
The two primary gaming resources I’ve used for this post is the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia and the Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign.
The old BECMI version of D&D had a perhaps surprisingly robust overview and system for strongholds, significant battles and politics considering its age and page count. Its no surprise the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia remain a beloved version of the game.
The Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign adds backstories, kingdom, downtime, honor, and reputation, and war rules to the Pathfinder game. It’s all optional. It is perhaps overly detailed (in true Pathfinder fashion), yet is remain one of the most inspirational books in my Pathfinder library. The key bits are pulled directly from the Kingmaker Adventure Path, which probably is no accident.
Alternatively, have a look at the leadership roles from the free online version.
Other sources include the noble background in the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons, as presented in the Player’s Handbook (2014), or on D&D Beyond.